Monday, December 5, 2011

It's Important, So Let's Not Talk About It

This article is too important not to pass on to anyone and everyone who can read above a 3rd grade level. And because the original link to the article is botched, I wanted to make sure that everything came through with ease. If I find a llink that works, I'll repost it.

Because death with dignity is a hallmark of most secular creeds that I'm familiar with, we are constantly fighting the interference of religious people who feel they have the answer about death and that all other philosophies should merely let them have their way in political policy.

Hence the hysterical and misguided information that was spewed about by conservatives during the consideration of the Affordable Health Care Act. There were patently false statements made about end of life issues and this hysteria was perpetuated by people who use religiously motivated opinions to distract and distort this important topic. Talking about the end of life and how we will deal with it is a major key to a more successfully lived life (IMHO).

This physician gives us a brief look into one perspective that is probably a majority of the attitudes held by healthcare workers in general. It's a breath of fresh air that we should embrace and discuss in detail.


How Doctors Die
It’s Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be
by Ken Murray

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home.

He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.
It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).

Almost all medical professionals have seen what we call “futile care” being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. The patient will get cut open, perforated with tubes, hooked up to machines, and assaulted with drugs. All of this occurs in the Intensive Care Unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist. I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, “Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me.” They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped “NO CODE” to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.

To administer medical care that makes people suffer is anguishing. Physicians are trained to gather information without revealing any of their own feelings, but in private, among fellow doctors, they’ll vent. “How can anyone do that to their family members?” they’ll ask. I suspect it’s one reason physicians have higher rates of alcohol abuse and depression than professionals in most other fields. I know it’s one reason I stopped participating in hospital care for the last 10 years of my practice.

How has it come to this—that doctors administer so much care that they wouldn’t want for themselves? The simple, or not-so-simple, answer is this: patients, doctors, and the system.

To see how patients play a role, imagine a scenario in which someone has lost consciousness and been admitted to an emergency room. As is so often the case, no one has made a plan for this situation, and shocked and scared family members find themselves caught up in a maze of choices. They’re overwhelmed. When doctors ask if they want “everything” done, they answer yes. Then the nightmare begins. Sometimes, a family really means “do everything,” but often they just mean “do everything that’s reasonable.” The problem is that they may not know what’s reasonable, nor, in their confusion and sorrow, will they ask about it or hear what a physician may be telling them. For their part, doctors told to do “everything” will do it, whether it is reasonable or not.

The above scenario is a common one. Feeding into the problem are unrealistic expectations of what doctors can accomplish. Many people think of CPR as a reliable lifesaver when, in fact, the results are usually poor. I’ve had hundreds of people brought to me in the emergency room after getting CPR. Exactly one, a healthy man who’d had no heart troubles (for those who want specifics, he had a “tension pneumothorax”), walked out of the hospital. If a patient suffers from severe illness, old age, or a terminal disease, the odds of a good outcome from CPR are infinitesimal, while the odds of suffering are overwhelming. Poor knowledge and misguided expectations lead to a lot of bad decisions.

But of course it’s not just patients making these things happen. Doctors play an enabling role, too. The trouble is that even doctors who hate to administer futile care must find a way to address the wishes of patients and families. Imagine, once again, the emergency room with those grieving, possibly hysterical, family members. They do not know the doctor. Establishing trust and confidence under such circumstances is a very delicate thing. People are prepared to think the doctor is acting out of base motives, trying to save time, or money, or effort, especially if the doctor is advising against further treatment.

Some doctors are stronger communicators than others, and some doctors are more adamant, but the pressures they all face are similar. When I faced circumstances involving end-of-life choices, I adopted the approach of laying out only the options that I thought were reasonable (as I would in any situation) as early in the process as possible. When patients or families brought up unreasonable choices, I would discuss the issue in layman’s terms that portrayed the downsides clearly. If patients or families still insisted on treatments I considered pointless or harmful, I would offer to transfer their care to another doctor or hospital.

Should I have been more forceful at times? I know that some of those transfers still haunt me. One of the patients of whom I was most fond was an attorney from a famous political family. She had severe diabetes and terrible circulation, and, at one point, she developed a painful sore on her foot. Knowing the hazards of hospitals, I did everything I could to keep her from resorting to surgery. Still, she sought out outside experts with whom I had no relationship. Not knowing as much about her as I did, they decided to perform bypass surgery on her chronically clogged blood vessels in both legs. This didn’t restore her circulation, and the surgical wounds wouldn’t heal. Her feet became gangrenous, and she endured bilateral leg amputations. Two weeks later, in the famous medical center in which all this had occurred, she died.

It’s easy to find fault with both doctors and patients in such stories, but in many ways all the parties are simply victims of a larger system that encourages excessive treatment. In some unfortunate cases, doctors use the fee-for-service model to do everything they can, no matter how pointless, to make money. More commonly, though, doctors are fearful of litigation and do whatever they’re asked, with little feedback, to avoid getting in trouble.

Even when the right preparations have been made, the system can still swallow people up. One of my patients was a man named Jack, a 78-year-old who had been ill for years and undergone about 15 major surgical procedures. He explained to me that he never, under any circumstances, wanted to be placed on life support machines again. One Saturday, however, Jack suffered a massive stroke and got admitted to the emergency room unconscious, without his wife. Doctors did everything possible to resuscitate him and put him on life support in the ICU. This was Jack’s worst nightmare. When I arrived at the hospital and took over Jack’s care, I spoke to his wife and to hospital staff, bringing in my office notes with his care preferences. Then I turned off the life support machines and sat with him. He died two hours later.

Even with all his wishes documented, Jack hadn’t died as he’d hoped. The system had intervened. One of the nurses, I later found out, even reported my unplugging of Jack to the authorities as a possible homicide. Nothing came of it, of course; Jack’s wishes had been spelled out explicitly, and he’d left the paperwork to prove it. But the prospect of a police investigation is terrifying for any physician. I could far more easily have left Jack on life support against his stated wishes, prolonging his life, and his suffering, a few more weeks. I would even have made a little more money, and Medicare would have ended up with an additional $500,000 bill. It’s no wonder many doctors err on the side of overtreatment.

But doctors still don’t over-treat themselves. They see the consequences of this constantly. Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures. I was struck to hear on the radio recently that the famous reporter Tom Wicker had “died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.” Such stories are, thankfully, increasingly common.

Several years ago, my older cousin Torch (born at home by the light of a flashlight—or torch) had a seizure that turned out to be the result of lung cancer that had gone to his brain. I arranged for him to see various specialists, and we learned that with aggressive treatment of his condition, including three to five hospital visits a week for chemotherapy, he would live perhaps four months. Ultimately, Torch decided against any treatment and simply took pills for brain swelling. He moved in with me.

We spent the next eight months doing a bunch of things that he enjoyed, having fun together like we hadn’t had in decades. We went to Disneyland, his first time. We’d hang out at home. Torch was a sports nut, and he was very happy to watch sports and eat my cooking. He even gained a bit of weight, eating his favorite foods rather than hospital foods. He had no serious pain, and he remained high-spirited. One day, he didn’t wake up. He spent the next three days in a coma-like sleep and then died. The cost of his medical care for those eight months, for the one drug he was taking, was about $20.

Torch was no doctor, but he knew he wanted a life of quality, not just quantity. Don’t most of us? If there is a state of the art of end-of-life care, it is this: death with dignity. As for me, my physician has my choices. They were easy to make, as they are for most physicians. There will be no heroics, and I will go gentle into that good night. Like my mentor Charlie. Like my cousin Torch. Like my fellow doctors.

Ken Murray, MD, is Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at USC.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fun With Words

 Below is the American Family Association's Statement of Faith, which was mentioned in an article on Rick Perry's prayer rally a few months back. My friend, Will, made some changes to it which are worth passing along.


1. We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

3. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.

4. We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.

5. We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

6. We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

7. We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.
AFA STATEMENT OF FAITH (with modifications)

1. If we strain credulity and countlessly repeat it to ourselves, we can come to believe the Bible (replete with absurdities) to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in at least three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, forever at loggerheads as they vie for top billing and adoration among their sycophants.  We also unashamedly believe in the Easter Bunny, wood nymphs and wee elves.   We believe such things realizing, as we do, that the more outlandish whatever we can get ourselves to believe, the more praiseworthy it makes us out to be in His eyes.  For example, any schmuck can believe that 2 + 2 = 4, but it requires saintliness of the highest order to marshall the faith required to believe 2 + 2 equals 4.3.  We say, "Let those who are able go for it!" 

3. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth*, in His sinless life, in His magic tricks, in His vicarious and atoning death through His slowly, thickly-oozing (but eventually coagulating) blood, in His sensational, much-talked-about expulsion from the grave with a loud POP, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, in his iridescent acne, and in His personal return in power and glow ree. 

4. We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential, for we are lowly turds who can do nary a thing on our own.

5. We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a god-like life, even to where he/she learns to transmute water into wine, although this last could require some practice.

6. We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life, and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation (wherein those unfortunates will be flame-roasted unto the point of emitting polychromatic hues--in perpetuam).

7. We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.  And remember, the more we can persuade to believe these impossible things the more secure we'll feel, since there's comfort in numbers, and it's hardly likely so many people could be wrong.

* Yahweh impregnated Mary, who of course, gave birth to Jesus; however, Jesus and Yahweh are indisputably one.  Therefore, in truth, Jesus impregnated his own mother.  Although we regretfully realize what this logically makes him (a crude street term that will go unmentioned) we must nevertheless somehow learn to look past this unsavory conclusion and accept The Mystery.  Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Taking A Leap Of Faith

Some movies are never meant to go very far or make much of a splash, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t make you think about their message long after you leave the theatre. I have a soft spot for films that can do that in spite of any lack of critical support.

I must admit I felt some trepidation about seeing The Ledge because I didn’t want it to be a movie that I regretted seeing and sharing with friends. I’ve chosen a few of those gems in the past year (“Skyline” comes to mind and, boy, was that a stinker.) When it happens, all you can hope is that it’s so horrible that you will giggle time and again when someone reminds you of your awful pick.

“The Ledge” did seem like a gamble and, in fact, I suspect a few friends didn’t go because they anticipated it would be as bad as the reviews seemed to imply. “If it had been a great movie, wouldn’t it have been given a lot more coverage?” queried a close friend. That’s a logical assumption to make. But in my case, at least, the gamble paid off and it’s worth explaining why.

On the way to the theater, I read a very hopeful review by atheist blogger, Greta Christina, and she laid out a reasonable and decent summary that made me aware of the expected faults and how the story still offered something for non-believers and believers alike. Christina felt this would open a door for discussion of the myths that society has about atheism in general and might lead to our own cultural acceptance, much like what has happened over the years in films dealing with the LGBT movement. It’s a start no less.

What intrigued me most is how scathingly dismissive many of the reviews have been. It’s almost as if the film we saw, and really liked for the most part, is not the same one seen by the majority of reviewers. My honest experience was this movie is not nearly as dreadful as we’ve been led to believe. Yes, there were moments of clunky dialogue. Yes, there were some contrived plot points. But many movies with what I would consider to be heftier amounts of clumsiness and contrivance have gotten less withering reviews than “The Ledge.”

What resonated for me was that everything about this film felt authentic in many small ways and that was fascinating when so much of the reviews frothed at the mouth about how overly “dramatic” or overly “stale” the production was (on and on and on the negativity flowed.) I even found the sex scenes to be quite compelling, which at my age is quite an achievement for any Hollywood movie. The audience does have to accept a few clich├ęd storylines in order to let the story flow, but then movies in general have that in common, even good ones sometimes.

First, the actors were sincere in their performances, and I was prepared to do a lot of eye rolling. I’m not even a lukewarm fan of any of the actors in fact, but I have seen most of them in excellent films, so I assumed they would be more than sufficient for a small film like this.

The protagonist, Gavin, portrayed by Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), could pass for a younger, blonder-locked brother of Heath Ledger. He provided some of the most laughable dialogue early on, but he redeemed the character by the end, thankfully. His good looks and long hair may also not be as believable as a mid-level manager of a hotel (in Baton Rouge), but what he lacks in a perfect fit professionally, he more than makes up for as one of us when he’s on the prophetic ledge. And Liv Tyler was at her best as the vulnerable, pale and unsophisticated neighbor wife, Shanna. In fact, I can’t imagine Tyler playing any role other than a female lead who oozes helplessness and compassion. Her voice and demeanor was simply spot on for this kind of woman. Somehow, they tap into her plainness which makes her that much more real. (Is that another miracle?)

Patrick Wilson was the real shocker for me. Wilson has always played the everyman, the good guy, and has been somewhat forgettable only because he is the never the main course, always the supporting friend or lover. And I can understand if the filmmakers are criticized a little for making him slightly one dimensional with the predictable Christian hang ups. However, his Joe hits a major home run in a confrontational scene with Gavin. You can’t help but feel for him deeply and his pain is heartfelt. Several of us commented on how moving his scenes were and we’re all major non-believers. Needless to say, no one was phoning it in and it shows.

The central idea I took from this film was that atheism wasn’t necessary for the story to challenge the audience. In fact, not being religious isn’t necessary to drive home the point in this story. The question our hero must answer is what would you do for another human being? What would you be willing to sacrifice? It is what disturbed me the most and stuck with me well into a sleepless night.

I simply can’t imagine facing that question in the way that Gavin does. And perhaps that may derail it for someone not in the mood for this film. I always do that in a movie like this: solve the problem magically in a different way than the protagonist. Then it would have been much shorter and more mundane, which may be how the reviewers saw it and that’s a real shame. So, it figures that if you don’t allow yourself to be swept up in the story, you may indeed miss the central message.

Do I think there were a few of the reviewers who may have allowed their dislike of the A-word or their religious beliefs to color their potential appreciation of the film? Possibly, because it follows that we can’t expunge our fundamental viewpoints from our personalities (and anyone who tells differently is usually the worst offender). But I don’t think it was a theistic conspiracy either. Perhaps, atheists simply find the questions in this film more gripping than a typical movie reviewer, so we had a totally different frame of reference than judging the merits alone.

Do I think some of the reviews were overly harsh? Most definitely, which is why I pushed myself to compose these thoughts so you just might give it a chance.

In the end, sometimes you have to go out on a ledge and trust yourself.

"The Ledge" was directed by Matthew Chapman, the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin. It was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and released in the summer of 2011.

You can see The Ledge right now through Video on Demand (your cable service), through the iTunes Store, or on the Internet at Sundance Now

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Freethinker In The Mirror

Rusty, a friend of mine from our secular humanist group, wrote an interesting piece that several people think is a pretty good challenge to non-believers:
"Are you a Freethinker?

A Freethinker is a person who thinks free from delusion, deception, misperception, fantasy, fiction and religious, political, cultural and even familial bias. For the sake of this discussion we will simplify it to freedom from religious philosophy.

There are two primary Christian philosophical concepts:

1. The obsessive and debilitating fear of Yahweh and Hell.

2. The unrelenting, defensive and blind obedience to the church that created Yahweh and Hell.

The church recruits and controls its members by brainwashing, lying, deception, guilt, shame, and fear. In order to maintain the loyalty of its followers in a world filled with intelligent, rational, secular minded people, the church has to instill in the believers these philosophical and behavioral mandates: arrogance, self righteousness, closed mindedness, argumentative, anger, divisiveness and unfair judgment, name calling, disregard for logic, reason and even facts over fiction and myth.

There are probably several more destructive human vices that haven't come to mind that have been incorporated into social philosophy for thousands of years in service of the church and undermining the progress and development of society; and many of the so-called freethinking atheists I have come to know over the past 20 months are controlled by at least some or many of these Christian-mandated self and socially destructive philosophical beliefs.

Rejecting God and religious dogma is the beginning of free thinking; recognizing this in yourself and eliminating these destructive, mind-crippling habits is the path to true freethinking, happiness and prosperity."

I think what inspired him was some of the recent posts at our NOSHA Facebook page (and maybe some other experiences as well), but he makes some very good points. Freethinkers who accept evolution and who are skeptical of belief in a supreme being aren't immune to other ideas that are a little on the less scientific side. I've met some non-believers who still believe in astrology and some who believe in fate and karma. Add to that people who support national conspiracies and you have a similar mindset who will argue for their own nonsensical flavor of the month.

I even find myself falling into the habit occasionally of thinking how some things happen "for a reason." When I catch this thought welling up, I feel silly for a minute, but I try to analyze why it happened and what would make me consider it. I usually think this to console myself after something disappointing happens, so I think it is reasonable that we try to make life less rough on ourselves. If things happen for a reason that is beyond our control, then it's even better that we figured that it was "meant to happen" that way. If shit just happens, however, it can happen again. And again. And we need a reason that doesn't make us feel so damn unlucky.

So, Rusty makes a good point that we as freethinkers and non-believers need to examine our own biases and be willing to look at what we hold dear and tear it down if need be. It isn't enough that we demand this of the religious, but we should be willing to do it ourselves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How Will You Cope With Being Left Behind?

That was the essay question posed by NOSHA at our "Left Behind" party in May. You know the day the world was supposed to end? We even awarded prizes for some of the best submissions written that wacky evening.

Here's the winning entry submitted by Betty of New Orleans:


How will I cope? What will I do?

In a word: very dry martinis. Wait! That's three words. How irrelevant. But then, when it's all over - everything is irrelevant. So right now, here and now, you want to Laissez Les Bon Temp Roulez!!! Yeah, baby, let the good times roll-l-l-l. (Make those very dry, Bombay Sapphire on the rocks martinis).

But while we're on the subject, why on earth (pun intended) would anyone fear a god they've never seen - much less trust to "beam 'em up, Scottie" to an unknown place, at an unknown time, in an unknown - what- spaceship?

Think about this SERIOUSLY. It makes no sense. It's (more) religious fantasy.

Be good to people, hope they'll be good to you - and - make mine a double, two Cajun olives and three cocktail onions and Sinatra on the CD player. Shit, do you really need anything more?

Thomas of New Orleans

Being left behind for a while is like being half-ass in heaven and half-ass in hell. I guess my right behind is in heaven and my left behind is stuck here until the end of days.

So as I see it, my left behind is just behind my right behind on that narrow road to heaven or hell. By being non-committal, I am actually covering my ass pretty well.

Of course, I don't want my left behind to fall behind my right behind too much as it may cause a crack in the fabric of the universe, in the neighborhood of Uranus.

Now, if I want my left behind to join my right behind, I must probably follow the Lord's way and turn the other cheek in order to be chic, worship the Lord more than my Ford, leave my neighbor's ass alone and not kill the valuable time I have left until the end of time.

Laura of Slidell

First, I would thank god for finally saving me from his followers. Afterwards, I would do the most heinous acts, since I'm doomed anyway:

Red beans and rice on TUESDAY
Mimosas on THURSDAY
Put tomatoes in gumbo and all sorts of villainy!

I would then grab a group of followers and proclaim myself the NEW messiah and force non-believers to sing karaoke. And, of course, my headquarters would be that nice yellow mansion on St. Charles Ave. I'd probably do some reading and learn to garden....just because. And practice for hell by standing in front of fires in August.

I'm very excited and hope to be in one of the upper circles of hell. The one with the celebrities.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Just What This Town Needs....More Skeptics


We do a pretty good job here at NOSHA pushing for observation and rational discourse, but goodness knows, we coud do with a touch more. And we'll have it after all of the hinting and hoping we've been doing since Katrina to get a meeting in town "put on" by one of our national organizations.

The end of October 2011, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in collaboration with Skeptical Inquiry Magazine and the Center for Inquiry will host CSICon 2011 in New Orleans. CSICon, the conference dedicated to scientific inquiry and critical thinking, should be a huge success and (pun intended) that shouldn't be a mystery. It's a fantastic conference town, the weather should be wonderful and there's plenty to do within walking distance if you skip a session or two (not many cities can really say that.)

So, I'm spreading the word here: (from a recent email blast)

New Orleans, October 27-30, 2011

For more information or to register, visit

CSIcon 2011 will be held in the heart of the French Quarter of New Orleans. From the vintage architecture to the authentic Cajun/Creole food, there will be something for everyone in The Big Easy. With so much culture, history and entertainment, you’ll find a unique and exciting experience around every corner. Separate history from legend and science from voodoo by joining the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) for four days of a skeptically good time full of mystery and reason.

There's plenty to do at CSIcon 2011, incorporating a schedule chock-full of speakers into four days of events. Leaders in their respective fields, from around the globe, will gather to discuss the latest in skepticism, science and news.

The lineup includes:

 Bill Nye • Eugenie C. Scott • James Randi • Indre Viskontas • Phil Plait • Barbara Forrest • Joe Nickell • Rebecca Watson • Steve Novella • Harriet Hall • And many more!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thou Shalt Ignore Stupidity

If we only could, right?

The Louisiana legislature passed a bill this month that will allow a monument of the Ten Commandments to be placed on the capitol grounds in Baton Rouge.

This falls under the guise that such a "serious" presentation will be in reference to the historical significance of this per the First Amendment or other such nonsense. You see, there are people who believe that without the Ten Commandments we may not have been able to come up with the laws we have today. Somehow civility would have been lacking without the influence of this particular set of religious rules. Bless their hearts.

So the very first hominids, when faced with a violent member of their clan, didn't figure out fairly fast that this kind of thing (murder) wasn't all that good for their survival? Really? Most everything today that we hold as common sense laws came from our experience over the thousands and thousands of years of trying to get along in groups. At some point, someone said, "...hey, we gotta get rid of that guy who is going around killing everyone. I need a quorum for the hunt next week, man." Ta da! There's a law.

I'm told by friends there are several versions of "ten commandments" that have been passed down through history from various religious groups that claimed their version as "the" version, so to speak. It stands to reason that the first question these State House morons should ask themselves is this: just exactly which set are you referring to?!? Only time will tell if this will be challenged in court and if it will pass constitutional muster, but the word is that it's a huge invitation to spend millions of dollars in litigation arguing about this insanity.

There's been talk that "they" (the people who will handle the selection and design of the monument) will allow submissions to be considered. Well, my friend, Jim, has a suggestion for a list of commandments that is very clever and I'm passing along for your consideration:

Separation of Church and State: An American Tradition

“No [one] shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever….”
--Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1777

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
--Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the U.S., 1782

“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
--Article VI, U.S. Constitution, 1787

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
--Amendment I, U.S. Constitution, 1789

“The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
--Treaty of Tripoli, 1797

“Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”
--John Adams, 2nd President of the U.S., 1812

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
--Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the U.S., 1814

“I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State.”
--Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the U.S., 1915

“Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.”
--U.S. Supreme Court, Emerson v. Board, 1947

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
--John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the US, 1960

Do you think these have a chance? Maybe if we adopt them as our own and chisel them into a marble slab?

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Whole Enchilada

It's pretty clear that secular, progressive citizens of Louisiana will not have any "wins" this year. What am I talking about, you ask? Here's the big four bruises, so far, for this year:

CREATIONISM: The repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act did not make it out of committee despite Baton Rouge high school graduate Zach Kopplin's most valiant efforts and the support he generated from forty Nobel Laureates. Here's one example of the blow back our state can expect:
“The lawmakers of Louisiana are a laughing stock as far as the scientific community is concerned,” Harold Kroto, a Florida State University scientist who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996, said in an email to The Associated Press. He added, “The present situation should be likened to requiring Louisiana school texts to include the claim that the Sun goes round the Earth.”
WOMEN'S RIGHTS: Rep. John Labruzzo of Metairie continues his hateful assault on women's reproductive rights and may just succeed in banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest and to save the life of the mother. This is so bizarrely evil that I'm unsure how he and his followers can face the public. But as I always say, the wives, mistresses and daughters of men like this probably aren't too worried about their medical needs, so the rest of us can be ignored with impunity.

TEN COMMANDMENTS: Who would have thought that someone in the 21st century would propose to place the Ten Commandments as a monument on the State Capitol grounds, but they are and it most likely will succeed. Who in this overtly religious legislature can vote against it without fear of political repercussions?

PRAYER IN SCHOOLS: And the cherry on top of this bloated sundae is Bastrop High School administration who thumbed their noses at the Establishment Clause of the Constitution during their recent graduation. This despite the embarrassment of making national headlines for ostracizing and threatening the student who made the complaint. Not to mention that they are in violation of the law.

It's enough to make you cry, cuss or laugh. Is there anything we can do to push this religious zealotry back even just a tad? That's the question I think everyone who calls themselves a humanist, atheist, freethinker or any other category of a church/state champion should ask themselves.

One suggestion I'd like to put out there is that where prayer in school is concerned (and has a high potential come graduation season) would be for every major public high school in the state to be petitioned by their local Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Jewish and Humanist "congregations" for the opportunity to make a similar statement alongside the Christian version, especially if there has been prior notice given that they will include a prayer in the ceremony. This no doubt would create quite the problem for a public institution to deny a local student (representing these groups) the opportunity to speak. It might even invite a legal challenge that would be costly and shameful on a national scale.

I call this making them "eat the whole enchilada." If they absolutely must flaunt the law, then they must accept the consequences of allowing other prayers. It would provide very teachable moments to people who aren't as concerned about it and who adopt the "....well, why can't they say their little prayer, it's not hurting anyone?" attitude. It might also educate students that there are other families in their community who feel as passionately about their religions and philosophies. Now getting the students and religious groups to agree to this is the hard part. No one wants to be singled out and bullied for standing up for their civil rights.

But, honestly, if we don't start standing up now, we might find we don't have the guts, balls or other body parts to fight back. And that's a reality I and others simply can't swallow. So serve up parity, hot and steaming, with a side of salsa and remind them of how good it will taste.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

To Mock or Not to Mock...

That is the question. And it seems to be a question of the minds of people who were concerned that our "Left Behind" activities would send the wrong message to the public about NOSHA and what we stand for. Are we mocking people and how does that promote respect and harmony? It's a valid question even if you don't feel we are doing anything to be ashamed of. (Which we aren't IMHO.)

A friend of mine, Jim, wrote a very thougtful piece that is worth sharing because it does a very admirable job of explaining what mockery is and how it is an important part of a society that is open and vibrant.
On Mockery:

I’m not surprised that some have reacted negatively here to what they see as ridicule of a particular religion, or of religion in general.  I point out that the real objective of this party is to celebrate our own freedom from fear and superstition.  Since it is impossible to celebrate freedom from fear and superstition without labeling something “fear and superstition,” that might come across to some as ridicule.

That being said, I would amplify Susan G’s quite cogent remarks made earlier in these posts: those who ascribe to the philosophy of Secular Humanism have at least a right, and probably an obligation, to mock religious beliefs of this type.  This party is being organized in reaction to a particular group who loudly proclaim that on May 21st true believers will be Raptured into heaven, an earthquake will shake the whole world, and the dead will rise from their opened graves.  Such ideas deserve mockery at several levels:

*  Most self-identified Christians reject ideas of a literal and physical rapture, bodily resurrection, and Second Coming.  This is not to say it is OK to mock an idea just because it is held by a minority, but to say that even most Christians think this is nonsense.  How much more ridiculous must this seem to outsiders?

* It is ridiculous to believe that one modern-day person, without any special training in ancient cultures or languages can rummage through the Bible, connect disparate passages as he sees fit, choose an obscure and unsupported dating scheme, throw in a dash of numerology, and  on that basis come up with the one true date for the beginning of the End.  Yet this is exactly what Harold Camping and his supporters claim.

* It is ridiculous to believe that this particular date proclaimed for the End is any different from the vast array of failed predictions that precede it.  History is littered with Great Disappointments, and to believe that this prediction is any different from hundreds of other abject failures is gullibility beyond measure.

This is not about anybody’s privately held religious beliefs.  This is about a small but well-funded group who have vigorously sought publicity for their monster-under-the-bed stories, both nation-wide and right here in New Orleans.

Agnostics, atheists, and Secular Humanists have wide and varied opinions on such matters.  But a key point of Secular Humanism, at least for those who ascribe to that philosophy, is that if we want to have better society now and in the future, then we must  leave the supernatural and superstitious behind so we  can apply human logic and human reason to solving our shared problems.  That principle is in direct conflict with the kind of deference to religion a few on this blog think we ought to show.  It is perfectly fair that religious believers had the right to proclaim their ideas to the public.  But it is neither fair nor reasonable for the religious to demand that nobody point out their irrationalities, once they’ve made a public issue of their beliefs. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Share The Good and The Bad

Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Most of us chalk it up to chance and luck.

But one of the annoying comments that will come up every once in a while is the charge that because non-believers, atheists, secular humanists and others "of our ilk" don't believe in magic, we must not know what it means to have traditions and share in the community at large.

I know it's part of psychology to distance ourselves from those who we think are different by branding them as "lesser than" in order to protect the group, but folks, this is the 21st century and that attitude needs to be kicked to the curb. We've all enjoyed the milestones in life: the birth of a child, a marriage, a death and we all most likely have family or neighborhood events that form around these big moments. Not to mention the seasonal parties that we grew up with and then indoctrinated the children and the friends who came along.

NOSHA is a community of people who count each other as friends, acquaintances, cohorts and, sometimes, as family, blood or not. And we would like to know about these major events in the lives of NOSHA friends and supporters.

* Major birthdays
* Weddings
* New babies
* Graduations
* Promotions
* Deaths
* "Once in a Lifetime" Trips
* Major anniversaries

No matter your age, sharing this with your secular buddies brings us closer together as, yes, a real community. Non-believers experience joy and sadness and since we have systematic way to acknowledge these interesting and important moments via NOSHA News, take advantage of it.

Send your newsletter items to:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saying Goodbye To Our NOSHA Friends

In the past month, two members of our community died only a few weeks apart and we should take a moment to remember them fondly.

First, there was Tina Lovine Missildine from Marrero, age 48, who died on January 21. Tina had attended our first NOSHA banquet in 2009 with Percy Prestenbach and had been a long time member. Next there was Scott Major who died on February 3 after a brief illness. Many of you met Scott (who also attended our first NOSHA banquet with his girlfriend, Renee Gunnells) when he could make it to our monthly meetings over the past year. He was a regular on our Google Group generally stirring up passions and keeping the conversation lively. Both Scott and Tina were parents, had interests they enjoyed and were one of our many non-believing friends.

It's been several years since one of our closely tethered group passed away. Serena Bodellini passed away in October 2009 and was a member of the NOSHA board of directors. One thing that all three of these lovely people have in common is that they each had events celebrating their lives with no mention of worshipping a deity or other overly religious element involved. This is a refreshing trend in the 21st century and one that all of us should consider in depth - how we see the end of our lives unfolding for our friends and family. I always say to myself that I will get my will written and write a few ideas down "officially" for my "end of life" ceremony, but since I don't have kids or a major desire to deal with my death realistically, it's on the list where it stays.

Scott Major's untimely death forced me to accept that the luxury of waiting may not always be there for me or anyone I hold dear in my life. Like all of us, one day he was walking down the street enjoying his morning and the next thing he knew, he's being taken into emergency surgery to repair his dissected aorta, the defective organ that he never knew he had. From that moment  on, his life, had he been able to recover slowly, would have consisted of caution and concern. And the awareness that things can change for you in a minute, just like my mother always told me they could. Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people and that's happened here.

At times like this, I'm very sensitive to why having a religious belief is a comfort to people who haven't explored the possibility that it may be a fairy tale. I wanted to pray for Scott, to talk to a god about how this time he needs to step in, make this right and save our friend. What could possibly be fair about striking down this 40-something man? I wanted to pray for Scott the way I wanted to pray for my brother and mother who've died in the past few years, but, you know, I couldn't. Not believing in a god is a very lonely place to be when you realize that all of us may simply just be lucky: to not get that disease, to not be strolling down that street, to not find ourselves in that ill body.

And I think that's why I'm not too puzzled by my anger. I'm very angry about what happened to Scott. That he didn't have more time to stabelize and get back to his life, to visit with friends and family a little longer, to eat some favorite food, to go on one last trip, maybe. To do all of the things we take for granted. I'm sure he, Tina and Serena would tell me that this is the one thing about dying that none of us can prepare for easily.  Serena said to me that one disappointment for her was just when NOSHA seemed to have more activities and was starting take off since Katrina, she simply couldn't depend on her body to let her participate. She was always fighting a serious condition that made her extremely tired. Truly, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.

When my father found out he had lung cancer, he was home recovering from surgery one December many years ago while I was on holiday from college. I remember sitting with him and he still seemed vibrant and healthy to me, even if neither of us realized he was at the beginning of a slow decline. That I could be with him daily pretending that somehow this was going to turn out differently were some of my fondest memories, because if it hadn't been for his illness, he would have been at work and I wouldn't have had a chance for this time with him. Ironic. But still being able to process how lucky we felt, if only for the moment, gave me the time to start understanding what was to come.

Some of us don't get the chance to pretend that life will be different, to pretend that maybe we'll be lucky this time. I will always wish that Scott Major did.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Next Thirty Years?

In October 2010, I attended my first ever major non-believers conference, “Setting the Agenda: Secular Humanism’s Next 30 Years,” which was sponsored as a subscribers’ conference for the magazine, Free Inquiry. Since I’ve been a subscriber for at least 15 years, this seemed like a good fit for me. I was eager because there was a remarkable list of secular celebrities on the program and it was touted as a definitive event.

To give you one humorous glimpse into the conference, Mark Oppenheimer with The New York Times observed, “The largely white and male crowd—imagine a Star Trek convention, but older…” My main goal here is to report every unique moment from my trip.

Depending on who you ask, it was a complete “sell out” with anywhere from 325 to 370 people at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in attendance. It seemed that since the CFI (Center for Inquiry) had to schedule this conference back in Fall 2008, at the beginning of the recession, they were forced to organize for a smaller number rather than risk not having enough people to fill the next level of hotel space. I think they could have easily had 100 or even 200 more attendees, but the economy dictated a more prudent choice back then. Amazingly enough, I found a friendly face in the crowd, Douglas King, a NOSHA member who resides in Baton Rouge and who attended our banquet featuring Ellen Johnson in August. The weekend was looking up!

The first plenary I attended on Friday was appropriately called “The First 30 Years” and boasted some of the heavier hitters in the secular movement: James “The Amazing” Randi, whose book Flim-Flam is regarded as a skeptical classic; Tom Flynn, current editor of Free Inquiry; Ed Buckner, past president of American Atheists; and Paul Kurtz, founder of Free Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism and CFI.

Randi was predictably charming and entertaining with his story of appearing on “The Johnny Carson Show” to debunk the faith healing preacher, Peter Popoff, back in the 1980’s. Randi’s technical investigation revealed that “…God is a woman and she sounds remarkably like Popoff’s wife, Elizabeth!” He told us that later that he got a delightful note from someone watching that night who said “I’m so glad that you exposed Rev. Popoff. Now I’m giving all of my money to Rev. So and So.” He found that very sweet and offered this thought to the audience that “…we are part of the remedy for ignorance. No one wants to come forward to say how stupid they are!” I discovered first hand how very spry and delightful Randi is when he chatted with me while I was buying books prior to this panel starting, before it hit me just exactly who this old man was. My luck.

However, sweetness gave way to more acerbic matters when the case was made by Kurtz that atheists are “bad” if they don’t support humanism out right. Clearly, there was a mentality of “us vs. them” being sown by the adherents for both points of view that continued throughout the weekend. Kurtz related an “untapped sentiment in society” back in 1980 that precipitated his pursuit and creation of CFI; there is something more that “mere atheism simply cannot address.” An example of the division at the national level was Flynn’s explanation of his push for promoting National Blasphemy Day, a move that Kurtz adamantly opposed, but nonetheless couldn’t prevent. A few resolute atheists challenged Kurtz that they are no less moral or good than a person who self identifies as a secularist.

In fact, one woman felt that Kurtz was not taking the “cultural wars” as seriously as he should that some of us must wage in parts of the country (where it is not as conciliatory for non-believers). His most memorable statement to me was his describing why he feels so strongly: “It is not enough to destroy, we must provide alternatives.” I happen to agree with this even as I feel we must not shrink from confrontations when they are necessary. The New York Times probably hit upon the best explanation of this divisiveness: “The disagreement was not, then, between atheism and humanism. It was about making the atheist/humanist case in America. A central question was, “How publicly scornful of religion should we be?’”

The next major panel was “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” which was by far the most lively in forcing the issue of how differently each perspective views the conflicts of science and religion in society. Science writer Chris Mooney (and the son of former NOSHA board member, Sally Mooney) admitted that his viewpoint falls more in line with accommodating the potential allies of non-believers, moderate or liberal Christians, and he bases his choice on the latest research into the attitudes of belief. Christians “are rejecting science because of a perceived conflict with moral values.” Like Kurtz, who believes that “the core of humanism is ethics and values” that are relevant to our lives, Mooney argued that “atheists should be mindful of this perception.”

Since believers resist science and the teaching of evolution in public schools because they fear that it will lead to a rejection of morals, this is a huge piece of evidence that cannot be totally dismissed out of hand. He suggests that atheists “should reassure Christians that their faith is compatible with modern science.” As conciliatory as Mooney was (considering that he has been taken to task this past year by the second speaker), noted biologist and well-known combative blogger, P.Z. Myers, wasn’t pulling any punches and is a “confrontationalist” with a capital “C.”

I found it especially refreshing to hear someone suggest that anger is a valid emotion when dealing with the way religion attempts to thwart scientific and social progress in our modern society and one that he feels shouldn’t be denigrated by our more passive supporters. Myers understands why “the new atheists are fed up with fighting the symptoms and want to take on the disease—religion.” Truth is the new atheist’s real value, he said.

Eugenie Scott, also a panelist and the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, was a disappointment for me simply because she seemed like she had so little to offer on this topic when her professional position should obviously demand otherwise. Clearly, she didn’t want to take a side and by that, I assumed, she is a deliberate “accommodationist.” That was a bit of surprise and left me concerned that she is in charge of the very organization that is so often fighting for science education in our schools. How can someone with such a decidedly unmotivated stance defend science against more aggressive and louder opponents? As likeable as she is, she didn’t care to express her opinion either for or against anything Mooney and Myers proposed. And isn’t that why she was invited to this conference? Strange.

Victor Stenger, celebrated professor of particle physics and distinguished author whose latest book, The New Atheism, brought him as a speaker to NOSHA in October 2009, provided more support for people voicing their atheism instead of “sucking up” to Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus “and any others who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in—what a human being can do with her own body.”

He feels encouraged that younger generations are less likely to be accommodationists because they are moving away from organized religion and that the United States is on its way to joining the developed world in rejecting religion’s control over our progress. He supports the idea that in order to see change in our society, it takes both approaches ultimately. “If you look at the history of every great social movement, you will see both components. There are people who work within the system to make changes. They often succeed, but usually at a snail’s pace—too slow to satisfy the millions who are impatient to have their inherent rights recognized by the power structure.” This outlook must be how confrontationists get their wings.

Friday evening culminated in a gala banquet where Richard Dawkins, author of numerous books—perhaps most well known is The God Delusion which has sold over two million copies in English and has been published in more than 30 other languages, was presented with the Robert Craggs Prize and over $45,000 to his foundation. Dawkins, who was present for the day’s sessions, spoke briefly and pointedly to the need for non-believers to be insistent that we reject efforts to coddle religion and made it clear that he didn’t share the same opinions as his esteemed dinner companions, Kurtz and Mooney, who flanked him at the head table. He was respectful, but it was clear to me he was “bitch slapping” everyone who fell more in line with the acommodationists’ arguments from earlier that day.

On the Saturday panel for “What can philosophy, ethics, aesthetics and the sciences contribute to our pursuit of the good life in this life?” author Jennifer Michael Hecht offered an interesting observation that there are two kinds of atheists: “…those who attack the silly stuff and those who attack the subtle beliefs” of Christians and others. This may be the source for the concern over how stridently we promote non-belief. Ron Lindsay, who is the president and CEO of CFI, spoke about the perception of humanist ethics and that the method by which we approach deciding many issues has a lot to do with content. People want to make decisions where moral certainty is not always possible, such as the right-to-die for the terminally ill. He gave a nice presentation about the Oregon law and what it means for current efforts. Rev. Barry Lynn with Americans United, delivered a rip-roaring speech on a panel about the separation of church and state and made me truly sad for anyone who had to follow his presentation.

The highlight of Saturday evening (maybe the entire weekend) was the debate between Sam Harris, author of New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation and Robert Wright, who has been named one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine and is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God. They were to speak on the subject of where “secular humanists stand today and tomorrow on questions of religion and belief,” but instead Wright baited Harris about his obvious disdain and public derision of Islam and we never made it back to the topic at hand. It didn’t help that Harris’ entourage of body guards put the throngs of attendees through a security detail (because he’s received death threats from both Christians and Muslims), which only hyped the paranoia of the evening!

Wright started off by stating that what bothered him most about the “new atheism” is the claim of being new. He’s also concerned that the new atheists think that religion is a major problem, and that the tendency to over emphasize religion means that “we take our eye off the ball.” I was never sure what the ball actually was to which he was referring.

What provoked Harris was Wright’s comment that new atheists are adding to the anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States. Once Islam was on the table, they never quite gave any time to the original topic, which was very disappointing. I made a note of one fascinating question he posed to Wright: “What would it be like if Dawkins came out as a Muslim?” It is easy to assume that Dawkins declaring he is any religion would cause a colossal stir simply because it would invalidate everything he stands for. So, Harris is concerned that we’ll wake up in a world “where the only people we can trust are our own religious people.” So for him, that is why what people believe matters; beliefs are the “engines of our behaviors” and that is why he is steadfast that Islam as a religion should be scrutinized.

There wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of the neuroscience surrounding morality, nor am I completely convinced that Harris does that well at presenting this in person yet. Even though I did and do enjoy listening to him in general. He is one of the “rock stars” for non-believers, after all. (He does have a new book out titled The Moral Landscape where he explores neuroscience in much greater detail). Nevertheless, he makes the compelling and evolutionarily sound proposal that “morality is a product of neuroscience” and that our pursuit of happiness, and that which is good for society, depends on brain chemistry. I do agree with that personally. I just wish he could have talked more about our people and what brain science can tell us about how we can make progress as a movement. That was the “send off” I had hoped for with this conference and, unfortunately, we have many rather large egos to stroke while we search for the answers.